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Student population drops at NM public universities

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Enrollment at six of New Mexico’s seven four-year public institutions of higher learning decreased in the school year just ended, but at a lower rate than suggested by a recent national report focused on all colleges and universities – public, private and two-year.

It appears the biggest drop occurred in some of the state’s private and two-year institutions.

As for the public four-year universities, Eastern New Mexico University reported a slight increase in the number of students, and the rest showed a range of decreases, from a 20 percent drop at Northern New Mexico College in Española to a one-student drop at New Mexico Institute of Technology in Socorro.

b01_jd_24may_enrollment_CMYKEarlier this month, the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center reported that all of New Mexico’s colleges and universities combined experienced the steepest enrollment drop in the nation over the past year.

From the spring semester last year to this spring, enrollment in the state’s post-secondary institutions plummeted 8.3 percent, compared to a national decline of 1.9 percent, the report said.

New Mexico had 10,914 fewer students enrolled this spring compared with last year, according to the report. New Mexico’s four-year public institutions lost a total of roughly 2,000 students – only one-fifth of the total decrease.

The report noted that the national decline in enrollment was greatest in community colleges and other two-year public schools, as well as at private, for-profit institutions. New Mexico is home to many such institutions.

The state’s largest public two-year school, Central New Mexico Community College, has reported a declining enrollment since 2011, when the student population peaked at 28,826. Unofficial enrollment this past spring was 25,197, a decline of 1.8 percent in one year.

The nation as a whole had about 18.6 million students enrolled in colleges and universities, a decline of about a million since 2011.

Education officials expect enrollment swings to level off in coming years, replaced by a gradual increase. They say the primary reason for the state and national declines is that for the first time in two decades, the number of high school graduates is dropping.

Experts also blame the improving economy for lower enrollment rates. When the recession broadsided the country in 2008 and unemployment skyrocketed, many adults returned to school for retraining.

Since then, however, as the labor market has gradually improved, many of those adult students have left school to return to work.

“After the recession began around 2008, enrollments at the University of New Mexico peaked in 2011 and then we began a slight but gradual decrease in head count,” said Terry Babbitt, associate vice president for enrollment management at the state’s flagship university.

But he acknowledged that the “most drastic changes for New Mexico and UNM during this period was the spring 2014 to spring 2015 decrease.”

Babbitt said the Clearinghouse report, which is issued twice annually, recorded the overall decline in New Mexico at 3.5 percent for the fall 2013 to fall 2014 period.

“There were 11 states with larger decreases for that time period,” he said. “We have obviously had some demographic and economic changes in New Mexico during 2014 that caused us to jump to the top of the list in decreased enrollment.”

In New Mexico, like the nation as a whole, the number of high school graduates has slipped. In the 2009-10 school year, for example, the number of New Mexico graduates was 19,465. Last year, it was down to 18,841, a decline of more than 3 percent. The difference was greater in Albuquerque, Babbitt said.

High school graduation figures are not expected to surpass 20,000 until the 2018-19 school year.

The Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education, which has been making accurate forecasts for more than 30 years, projects the end of “the era of annually increasing graduating classes.”

According to projections, New Mexico’s high school graduating classes will increase by about 1 percent annually for the coming decade and reach a high of 22,300 before beginning to drop again.

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